Death Cleaning: A Uniquely Mormon Issue

“To hunt for misplaced things is never an effective use of your time.” – Magnusson

In 2011 Marie Kondo gave us The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing as a bright young woman who had spent her short life being organized. At the time it is not clear she had to share a household with an uncooperative spouse. Children did not come into her life until years after she told us there was a magical way to be organized.

Where Marie Kondo speaks from idealistic youth, Margareta Magnusson talks to us from her age, “between eighty and one hundred,” a matriarch whose grandchildren are now adults.

In The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, Magnusson tells us that the Swedes have a word for dealing with the life possessions of a person when they are no longer around. And though the point is to be considerate of the burden others may bear upon your passing, it doesn’t hurt that your life is easier when everything has a place and you don’t retain things you no longer need.

Magnusson is an artist, and the book is illustrated with her delightful drawings such as a favorite dog, a treasured wok, a day skiing in a bikini, and a basket of blossoms like the ones her mother-in-law introduced to Sweden from Japan in her Mt. Fuji gift shop.

As Magnusson told of her three formative “death cleaning” instances, I realized I have experienced similar requirements to “death clean.” But in some circumstances, as a helpful member of my congregation, the time allotted to accomplish the task was hours rather than the weeks Magnusson had.

Helping Dad

“Do not ever imagine that anyone will wish–or be able–to schedule time off to take care of what you didn’t bother to take care of yourself.”

Magnusson’s first death cleaning occurred when her mother passed away after 46 years of marriage. As Magnusson helped her father move to a smaller apartment, she found messages attached to many items, specifying what should be done. Even though illness had prevented Magnusson’s mother from performing the actual dispositions, she had taken responsibility for her things in a manner that made it much easier for her loved ones.

The Mother-in-law

“At the time, I never realized how thoughtful she was.”

Magnusson’s second death cleaning was for her mother-in-law. This time there weren’t little labels on items, but the job was made easy because the older Mrs. Magnusson had gifted many of her possessions to family and friends throughout the last years of her life.

Being a Widow

“Your favorite oracle and problem solver is no longer around… to make life easier.”

The third death cleaning Magnusson discusses was following the death of her husband of forty-eight years, following a long illness. Looking to her future, Magnusson prepared to move from their large home with an extensive garden to an apartment with a balcony. It took almost a year.

Retaining Memories rather than Stuff

“Living smaller is a relief.”

Throughout this delightful volume, Magnusson shows us by example how she dealt with lightening the load for loved ones. Where many organizing books are full of checklists, Magnusson’s book is full of tips delivered in conversation, the way one might learn from a good friend during a pleasant outing. She is authentic and delightful as she shares how she has dealt with possessions, both in putting them away from her life and in a couple of cases keeping them long past official need.

She speaks of how she kept baby cloths her mother had hand-sewn for her children. “I kept some of these items in a box in the attic, in case I was to be blessed with grandchildren. And when grandchildren failed to arrive, I would take the box down and remind my lazy children of what I wanted… I now have eight grandchildren. And no baby clothes in the attic.”

Why Do I Say This is a Uniquely Mormon Issue?

My formative “death cleaning” was when my paternal grandfather died a few years after our grandmother. My sisters and I had a single day to clear out an apartment full of our grandparents’ possessions. That was the event that made me swear I didn’t ever want to make someone else have to clean up like that after I was gone.

Other “death cleanings” have occurred when beloved members of the congregation have passed away or had to move. Sometimes it is “death cleaning” in a situation where realities make a former living situation untenable or the contents of an ongoing living situation inappropriate.

Mormons are unusually likely to be asked to help in such a cleaning.

In addition to the enhanced likelihood that we, as Mormons, may be asked to assist in such an effort, there is the concern we, as Mormons, have about the family history implications of wholesale destruction of ephemera.

Finally, I have seen families torn apart by disagreements over matters when a loved one passed. Magnusson puts her gentle art forward as consideration and politeness, but it is also a matter of loving and maintaining relationships. Taking responsibility for ensure our “stuff” doesn’t harm surviving loved ones is uniquely a concern for those who believe families are forever.

So I suggest we evaluate our current holdings in light of the time and effort they divert from the things we’d rather do and in light of the burden others will bear if we don’t take responsibility ourselves.

And if that seems overwhelming in light of young children or active teenagers, take heart. Magnusson suggests death cleaning need not become a significant priority until age 65.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

9 thoughts on “Death Cleaning: A Uniquely Mormon Issue

  1. Although she was not LDS, after my paternal grandmother’s funeral, her children returned to the house to divide what was there among the 14 of them. One of them picked up a small vase & asked “Who wants this?”, when one of the sibling observed there was writing on the base. Grandma had written the names of her children on the base of nearly every possession, to indicate to whom it was to now belong. She had not been cognizant for several years, but had labeled the items while she was. I thought it was a great idea, and still do, but prefer the approach of actually giving away the items to their intended recipients when possible.

  2. I fear death cleaning at my parents house when they go. We keep trying to get them to downsize now. They’re wholly uninterested in that. We’ll probably just back a dumpster up to the house and fill it. It’s all junk.

  3. What’s the name for people who go through old barns, etc., looking for antiques and valuables? Scroungers? There was a TV show on it.

    Maybe donate the stuff to Goodwill. They now have people who go through their donated items and put the more valuable stuff on their auction web site (sort of like ebay). I have a friend who does that. He does the photos and writes the descriptions.

    There could be a valuable GI Joe in there from the 1950’s.

    Some times, the husband is a hobbyist of some sort, and the widow has no idea of the value of the hobby things, and can be taken advantage of by an unscrupulous person. There’s “junk”, but there are also reasonably priced things, and the occasional collector’s item that is more valuable.

    I occasionally go to a Goodwill “Outlet” store where it’s a last-chance to buy things that didn’t sell in regular Goodwill stores. I once found a genuine leather Quad combination in pristine condition. Another time, a large size Catholic “family Bible” also in pristine condition. Each worth about $50, but I got for free since they were Bibles. (I made an extra donation.)

    There are people who make a living by buying stuff cheaply at the Goodwill Outlet store, then selling it on ebay, or at yard/garage sales, or flea markets.

  4. The gist of Magnusson’s book is a polite indication that it’s highly inappropriate to leave all the work to others, that one should take responsibility for one’s own holdings and their disposition.

    Obviously if you are the stuckee and under a hideously short deadline, then big piles for dumpster, donate, selling, and distributing are in order. Mistakes may well happen, but at least the person who collected all the stuff (if dead) isn’t around to object to what you’re doing with their precious things. But I can’t help but think of the story where a box was about to be burned, but someone happened to notice papers with old writing which turned out to be Eliza Snow’s Nauvoo journal…!

  5. I am old and came very close to death several years ago. I don’t believe anyone has an obligation to prune their belongings down for the sake of others. As an artist I have accumulated artworks, both of my own and others. I have a comfy couch that would be too expensive to replace but it would likely be the first item to go into the dumpster once I die. I have seen the homes of both young and old where lack of care and a tendency to holding on to useless items is a problem for any who might have to do a cleanup for any reason. However I recently had a dream in which some young folks reduced my furnishings to something sparse and trendy and my waking sensation was of violation. The real problem for those left behind is the mix of junk and treasure that requires something more complex than bringing in a dumpster. Yet those things I treasure might be seen as junk by my survivors. My kin have often surprised me when I ask if there is anything they want ear marked as a legacy. Sentiment and nostalgia sometimes play a larger part than monetary value.

  6. I remember a case where a woman sufffering from cancer had massively pruned her holdings. The idea was that if she rallied, she would have the enjoyable project of refreshing her home furnishings. But when she passed, her husband didn’t have any living room furniture, any table or chairs for dining, or a microwave. Meanwhile the lady in question had not donated much if anything from her extensive and elegant wardrobe. So “getting rid” of holdings can go too far and possibly get rid of that which would be useful to a dear survivor while leaving much that would be emotionally difficult for the survivor to handle.

  7. Sorting material remains can be an act of mourning and a journey of discovery. When my mother died she left many works of art as well as art supplies. She also left correspondence from family ,and some celebrities as well as many family pictures. Few modern people have letters and in some cases even family pictures have been converted to electronic access only.

  8. I admit I would have been the poorer had I not had the experience of cleaning my Chinese grandparent’s apartment with my sisters. I just would have preferred to have more “journey of discovery” and less “mucking out” given the strict deadline.

    At any rate, I recommend the book. Much as I enjoy all such books, I have felt Marie Kondo’s works set a bar that is unattainable. But I can see mature wisdom in what Magnusson writes.

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